More than 60 years after the drug thalidomide caused birth defects in thousands of children whose mothers took it while pregnant, scientists have discovered how the drug produced such severe fetal harm.
Developed by the West German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal, thalidomide was licensed from the late 1950s and marketed as a mild sleeping pill. Promoted as being completely safe, the drug was even given to pregnant women on the grounds that it could supposedly reduce morning sickness. However, it was eventually withdrawn from the market amidst a global scandal a few years later after it was found to result in babies being born with malformed limbs.
In all, more than 10,000 children worldwide are believed to have been born with physical deformities due to their mothers having taken thalidomide. Tellingly, therefore, secret files obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in Australia reveal that Chemie Grunenthal had repeatedly ignored and covered-up warnings that the drug could damage unborn babies. Clearly, had the company not chosen to put shareholder profits before the health and lives of unborn children, the scale of damage caused by this dangerous drug could have been significantly reduced.
One of the darkest episodes in the history of the pharmaceutical industry, the story of thalidomide continues to act as a powerful reminder that there really is no such thing as a ‘safe drug’.